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Dr Shah Alam
Clinical, Equality, diversity and inclusion, Race, ethnicity and culture

‘I never saw anyone who looked like me in the profession’

Fauzia Khan interviews Dr Shah Alam, BABCP accredited CBT Therapist and Clinical Psychologist at East London NHS Foundation Trust. Shah tells Fauzia about his journey into psychology as a British Bangladeshi Muslim Male.

26 September 2022

What inspired you to pursue a career in psychology?

I am from East London, Tower Hamlets, where we have a large Bangladeshi Muslim community. We are a community where there are a lot of financial, social and physical health needs, all of which can impact mental health. I always knew I wanted to work in a profession where I wanted to help people, especially people from my own community. We are a community that do not openly speak about mental health and services have not always helped us in the best way possible.

My parents encouraged me to strive to work hard. Their hopes for me had been to become a medical doctor, but I wasn't great at Chemistry so that didn't work out! I had chosen Psychology by chance at A-levels following my sister's advice. Little did I know it would be fascinating and end up being the area I pursued for my career path.

It was disheartening that the message I got at undergraduate was 'do not apply to become a Clinical Psychologist, it is too difficult'. I never saw anyone who looked like me in the profession. However, I used this along my career journey, to motivate me to make a change.

You initially trained as a CBT therapist, so what brought you into Clinical Psychology?

My background had been working in IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies), where I learnt a lot of my clinical skills and I went from being a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner (PWP) to then train to become a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. I wanted to learn more about CBT models, with a particular interest in how we can work to adapt CBT to work with racially minoritised communities. I wanted to develop my skills to learn different modalities, be able to work with different populations and also develop my research skills. I didn't have being a Clinical Psychologist in my mind early on in my career as I thought it would be impossible. As I progressed in developing my skills, I became more confident and ready to apply. Now, I appreciate being able to use different models and flexible ways of working in the community to support people.

What spurred your interest in working with Children, Young People and Families?

One of my earlier roles, when I was 21-years-old, had been support worker with adolescents in an inpatient mental health ward. I was keen to work with this population to target early intervention, which has also involved doing mental health and wellbeing workshops in secondary schools. I found working with young people enjoyable, being creative in the therapeutic work we do. I valued linking in with their network to support them, such as parents, teachers, social workers etc. I recently moved to work with adults again, from my previous role working in Paediatrics, and I remain working in East London, working within the community that I am a part of.

And where does your passion for working with people from racially minoritised backgrounds stem from?

From growing up in one of the most deprived areas of London, I saw and experienced a lot of the challenges our communities face. Services and professionals may not always support us in the best way, with people experiencing racism and discrimination. My parents had not always spoken English and I saw the barriers they faced in accessing healthcare but also heard about the struggles with moving to London and needing to build a life here. This is why I wanted to become a Psychologist, to support communities better and make changes for us. I also see that there are not many South Asian Muslim men who work within Psychology and I wanted to be a part of that representation… and also to be that person for others wanting to work in the field, to see that it is possible for someone Brown, someone who is a man, to make it within a largely White, female profession. I also did my doctoral thesis looking at barriers to mental health support for racially minoritised communities and also exploring mental health within British Bangladeshi Muslim Men, which stemmed from this.

Tell me about your role as co-chair of the British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive PsychotherapiesSpecial Interest Group.

We are a group that are open to all BABCP members, with a focus on equity. We support members to share experiences and to write about cultural adaptations to CBT in their work. We discuss ways in which we can reduce inequalities in the services that we work in. We have presented research at BABCP conferences looking at specific communities, such as the Gypsy, Roma & Travelling community, the Bangladeshi community and the Black British community. We are keen for members to continually join us, to contribute to our meetings and written pieces.

What is it like navigating Psychology as a British Bangladeshi male? What are some of the challenges you've experienced, both personally and professionally, and how have you sought to overcome these?

There wasn't anyone who I could see in the field of Clinical Psychology that looked like me and anyone I could identify with. I got used to being 'the only' South Asian Muslim man on an undergraduate Psychology degree, in the services I worked in and on my CBT and Clinical Psychology training courses. I felt separate from the profession and also in teams, who had been majority White. I had accepted that this would be how things would be, until later on in my career where I found my voice to speak out.

An example is how I rarely experienced the acknowledgement of Eid celebrations from some courses I had trained at, the majority White teams, supervisors and also my own friendship circle. In the UK context, I reflected on how rarely my own religious celebrations were acknowledged and so decided to raise this with one of the courses I was studying at and use my voice on social media. Following this, staff had made more of an effort to acknowledge religious celebrations for their students. However, I also know how frustrating this can be for us minoritised people to always feel like we need to 'lead the way' on these issues.

'The majority' may not realise how lonely and isolating this can feel, which is why it's essential to have conversations about this in a safe space to support racially minoritised staff. If you are reading this, please consider what this might be like and if there is anything you could do.

I found it hard when on training courses feeling a responsibility to always raise issues of culture, ethnicity and religion as these were often only spoken about as a 'token slide'. There had been feelings of wanting to raise these conversations but then feeling exhausted and frustrated and wanting to step back. I learnt that it is not my responsibility but everyone's and that it is okay to step back, and look at what is in my capacity to hold at a given point. It has been helpful to have safe spaces to speak to friends and colleagues about my experiences and also have things in my life other than work (such as running!). The responsibility is not only on us the 'minority' it is on everyone to reflect, learn and make changes to support racially minoritised staff and service users.

Now I use my position of power as a Clinical Psychologist to think about what I can do to help change the profession but also services. I formed a space for South Asian Male aspiring and qualified therapists across the country as a space to network and to highlight experiences of the South Asian communities that we are from. This space continues to grow, and people have reached out to say how much they appreciate a space like this. I also co-ordinate the Valued Voices Mentoring Scheme in London and the South East region, where we support aspiring Clinical Psychologists from racially minoritised communities into the profession. We match mentees with a Trainee and Qualified Clinical Psychologist in a three-way mentoring relationship for a year and run webinars and workshops to support people along their journey. The sign-up for 2022 is now closed and sign-up for 2023 will be announced in the future. I value being part of these initiatives and making changes to shape the new generation of Psychologists.

You were involved with curating a short film for the BBC on the mental health needs of British Bangladeshi men; tell me about this?

This was an amazing opportunity that came up during the lockdown period in London from the Covid-19 pandemic. I am grateful to have had this platform to highlight the mental health needs in my own community. I had made a video initially in Sylheti, Bengali for the BBC, speaking about looking after your mental health during the pandemic. This led to making a clip linked to my thesis, exploring mental health in the Bangladeshi community and specifically with men. This had an overwhelmingly positive response and a lot of people in the community reaching out to speak about mental health and wanting support.

The video means a lot as we had an Imam and also my cousin Imran speaking about the impact of the death of his father (my uncle) during the pandemic on his mental health. I'm very proud of the video and I hope it continues to be helpful for people in the community. I am glad to also hear about the work Imams are doing to link Islam and mental health, as I feel this is an area that can be developed even further for the benefit of the Muslim community.

Why do you think diversity and representation is so important in psychology, and what needs to change?

People from racially minoritised communities need to be better supported. The treatment of our communities in society also puts us at risk, the experiences of racism, discrimination and inequalities in healthcare. We need services and professionals to be able to work flexibility and safely to support people and remove the barriers to accessing support. Services need practitioners working within them to reflect the populations that they serve, as for too long Psychology has been a majority White female profession. Change needs to occur at all levels, from the top-down and bottom-up. We need improved teaching on training courses, decolonising curriculums, diverse faculty and safe spaces for racially minoritised students and staff. Courses must also review their entry requirements as immediately these will exclude a large proportion of the community. Training needs to be accessible on courses and within services to highlight ways we can better work with individual communities, as a 'one size fits all' approach is not possible. From the teaching I do and involvement with some of the current Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and CBT training courses I know this work has started and hope that it will continue in an effective way for change in the profession.

Okay, so we've spoken a bit about your personal and professional experiences… what advice would you give to others from minoritised backgrounds either pursuing or thinking about pursuing a career within clinical psychology?

Think about your own values, the reasons why you want to become a Psychologist and what your hopes would be from getting onto training. I've heard so many stories of people being discouraged to apply, due to not being 'good enough'. Keep going as anything is possible! Network and see who else is around you to support you in your career goals. I did not think that myself, someone from Tower Hamlets, being the first in my family to get a first degree from University and a doctorate would be able to become a Psychologist! If you are willing to work hard and enjoy the journey of building up skills and learning along the way, it will be worth it. It has not been easy and the profession has much that still needs to change, but there are changes happening. I appreciate the position I am in and opportunities I have had, remembering the core of why I am doing this; wanting to support people from all communities, motivating me to do the best I can.

Photo credit: Nahiyan, @scarisalive